Saturday, 28 October 2017

Revolution in our heads… October (1928), London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican

October is a remarkable film and tonight we heard its equally outstanding score for the first time in over eight decades. Rarely can music have played such an integral part in a film’s narrative force with Edmund Meisel’s reconstructed original score carrying so much interpretive sentiment for the visuals and propelling Eisenstein’s polyrhythmic editing forward with forceful themes and – spoilers! – the beat of irresistible change.

100 years on from the events themselves and 90 from the filming there’s a lot of hindsight that could be applied to both revolution and film. An IMDB user asked (genuinely) whether the audience of the twenties would have cheered the film less profoundly had they known about Stalin’s ensuing murderous  totalitarianism - Dekulakisation had only just begun when October was filmed and the first five-year plan started in its year of release. The whole idea of a revolution is now regarded by many as a bad idea given how it all turned out… but, the future only judges... it doesn't make revolutions, that is the past and, especially, the present.

Maybe I feel a little protective of the Russian revolutionary spirit after all those hours spent trying to understand the thing and then communicating conclusions that might impress some of the leading – and, as it turned out, patient - historians in the country. That study has left its mark, especially the need to contextualise without the rush to judgement... I hope! October 1917 may have been the beginning of full Bolshevik rule in Russia but it was also the final end of a regime that had routinely left the poor to starve and which had sent thousands of its people into war armed with pics and sickles to fight against the might of the Prussian military machine. Two wrongs don’t make a right nor do three or four but it happened and we need to understand why. Unfashionably, all this involves the study of detail

In this context, October (Октябрь) provides invaluable contemporary documentation of how the new government wanted its achievements to be recognised ten years after the fact.

Tonight’s screening was of a restored version of the film featuring also a reconstruction of the Edmund Meisel’s lost original score by Bernard Thewes which was played with magnificent force by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the energetic Frank Strobe. Meisel’s music had been written for the shorter export version of the film, re-titled October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and so Thewes had to expend and flex the score in sympathy. Not an easy task given the excellence with which the original matched the narrative… but he achieved the perfect meld of action and emotion. The score featured repeated themes – foot-stomping musical dialectic - but also interpretive sounds matching bells ringing, sirens and guns: these were almost like a visual click-track and the band was always on time.

Vasili Nikandrov is Ulanov!
Scoring alongside Eisenstein’s swift cutting and "intellectual montage" is not easy and yet Meisel works so well on and around these moments; sometimes juxtaposing and at others signalling the broader point. Poor old Aleksandr Kerensky, the liberal heading up the provisional government between February and October 1917, is shown no mercy being heavy-handedly, and hilariously, compared first to a mechanical peacock and then to Napoleon. The victors not only write history they also get to set it to music.

The same approach is used for organised religion, the reactionary forces of army and government, the Cossacks, the Bourgeoisie and all the main factors eroding the gains made in February ’17 and thereby necessitating the eventual full Bolshevik revolution on 25th October 2017. At the start of the film a statue in memory of Tsar Alexander II is torn down and half-way through is begins to re-assemble itself… funny, hammer and sickle over-the-head obvious but that’s the business of propaganda-show nyet
Kerenski under pressure...
Grigori Aleksandrov is co-writer and co-director but the style seems to fit with that used by Eisenstein in Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). There is the same approach to casting, with the players mostly amateur and cast for looks, none more so than Vasili Nikandrov who looks like Vladimir Lenin and the direction is enough to make sure that he acts like him too. There are some ace faces playing Cossacks and the middle classes who turn on a loyal Bolshevik and beat him to death with their parasols… I also liked a scene in which the Cossacks dance balletically on a Persian rug whilst ordinary soldiers jig in a pool of mud: it’s a joyous improvisation which captures the directors’ ability to keep the rough edges even when his editing leaves him in perfect control of the visual end-product.

There’s a magnificent sequence when the authorities call for all the bridges around the centre of Moscow to be lifted so as to isolate the proletariat and prevent their access. It follows on from a riot and as the bridges lift a dead horse goes with one and another gently lifts the flowing locks of an unconscious woman… lives without consequence to an uncaring, conflicted, interim government which – the film says – still wore some of the Tsar’s clothes.

The revoilution was not filmed and so this recreation remains our "view" of the storming of the Winter Palace...
Certainly, the film is propagandist and "un-historical" but it is historic in of itself and this combined restoration of sound and vision cements its position in the cannon. Some compare it with Triumph of the Will but, firstly, whilst Eisenstein and this film are far more worthy and influential, the Soviet experiment was not pre-destined to turn into authoritarianism and mass-slaughter (seriously) whereas, the National Socialists’ had a clear agenda. Any viewing of both films shows the huge difference between the party forcing a single, rigid aesthetic and the other celebrating people power and the chance to build a fairer society for all the people.

“For Bread, For Peace, For the Brotherhood”.

At the end the packed main auditorium at the Barbican exploded with thunderous ovation for the orchestra, conductor, music and film. As so often, tonight was a mix of concert-goers and the cinephiles… no doubt there were differing interpretations of the film but I swear as I left the were the unmistakable vibrations of revolution in the air… When I wake up tomorrow the means of production make well have been seized… such as they remain.

The LSO take a bow.
My bust of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a present from Moscow in 1981, overlooks tonight's programme.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Powderpuff picaresque… The Loves of Casanova (1927), with Stephen Horne, BFI, London Film Festival 2017

The BFI’s Bryony Dixon describes The Loves of Casanova as “… an exercise in ebullience…”, whilst Lenny Borger called it a “"Europudding" – albeit with plenty of flavour… and it’s hard to disagree. You could watch this film as a kind of biopic either of the life of Giacomo Casanova or of Ivan Mozzhukhin, possibly both… but either way there’s no absence of charisma.

The film was shot partially in Venice and it was good to revisit the location so soon after I recently returned there, albeit 90 years before… (it hasn’t changed much, but then I doubt it ever does, a little lower perhaps?). Entirely because sumptuous locations just are not enough, Casanova also features a veritable “kitchen sink” delivery of mise-en-scène throughout and not least for the climactic scenes with stunning Pathecolour during Venice carnival.

The camera is right amongst the action too, hand-held in Gance style, pulling the viewer into this glorious world of masked balls, illicit liaisons and romance… with a guy who can’t say no. There’s Casanova sword-fighting a dozen men, a colourized river-rescue, massed pursuit by gondola and horse and sleigh pursuit in the snow with everyone but the lead – audience and supporting players – in shock as our hero keeps his cool home and away…

Ivan Mozzhukhin: ridicule is nothing to be scared of
Bryony said the film was an attempt to out-Hollywood, Hollywood and it certainly has a good go. A tinsel-titled Casanova is followed by exploding fireworks and then dreams of dancers in Venice as our hero is revealed in his luxurious quarters. He is woken by his two, attractive blonde “assistants” just in time for the first bailiff of the day to attempt to arrest him.

The men find a famous dancer, La Corticelli (a shockingly topless Rina De Liguoro) in Casanova’s bedroom and the host then performs “magic”, persuading Menucci to accept his book of spells in exchange for the debt. Then we meet little Djimi (Raymond Bouamerane) who is the servant of Baroness Stanhope (Olga Day), he asks a man on the street where Casanova lives and all the windows in the street are opened by women who know the answer. The mood is playful, Russian whimsy filtered through French style as young Djimi plays tag with Casanova’s two assistants and then is chased by Baron Stanhope (Dimitri Dimitriev) as he tries to deliver a message from C to B… she reads the letter and then throws the torn pieces out of the window only for her husband to catch both them and their meaning.

A bit blue: Rina De Liguoro and friends
Next to a grand banquet in which Corticelli is host and we also meet a lieutenant of the Russian Imperial Guard, Gregori Orloff (Paul Guidé) who has plans of his own… slipping round the back to watch the women dance naked as Casanova and the rest stare at the shadows their bodies cast on a screen… It is SO saucy and, when our hero picks up his favourite dancer – Corticelli of course – she is clearly naked (of course). Ooh, la, la!! Or, as they say in Liverpool, ooh, la, la, la

But the Lieutenant is also interested and duels with Casanova but the dancer decides that they should be friends…  And that’s only the first half an hour!

Chased out of Venice on jumped up charges of sorcery, Casanova heads North and, in Austria, encounters Duc de Bayreuth (Albert Decoeur) and his party which includes a pretty-faced boy, Bellino… Casanova intervenes to stop a group of drunks abusing an old fiddle player showing that he’s a much Robin Hood as Don Juan and Bellino seems strangely impressed.

About a boy? Jenny and Ivan
During the night Casanova hears odd noises and Volkoff shows our hero imagining hazy images to go with the sounds as he leans, in sharp focus, against the door. There’s something afoot and the great lover once more springs to the rescue to find that Bellino is not at all a boy and that the Duc is trying to have his evil way with her… Thérèse (Jenny Jugo).

A dramatic rescue is cut short as sheer weight of men and horses overcomes Casanova… will he ever find her again? Here again there are some great shots from Volkoff and his team of cinematographers, Fédote Bourgasoff, Léonce-Henri Burel and Nikolai Toporkoff. With a camera pointing up as men on horseback race overhead you are reminded of the director’s work on Gance’s Napoleon.

He and Djimi are rescued by a passing stage coach containing M. Dupont who is en route to the court of Catherine II with the latest in lingerie and dresses… Casanova takes his stock and his passport – needs must and he has another court to conquer as Ivan and Alex make a dream return home.

Suzanne Bianchetti and Catherine's great, big train...
In St Petersburg we find Dr Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, highly impressive as a fractious Tsar Peter III and Suzanne Bianchetti as a serene Catherine II… The queen takes rather well to her new friend and his fashions and as Orloff spots his old mucker, the two remember their pledge to remain friends just in time… and, soon, there are more important matters afoot. The Tsar is going too far, and regime change is in the air, he humiliates Catherine once too often and Casanova comes to her aid as the Empress’ forces re-align the gender balance at the top of government.

Catherine, who is pretty great, arranges a ball to celebrate and it’s here that Casanova spots Maria, Duchess de Mari (Diana Karenne) … He just can’t help himself “selecting” and it’s always “at first sight” as well… He’s a gentleman but he is more lion than human if you want to get zoological.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Paul Guidé
At the ball Empress Catherine has perhaps the longest train in movie history… the ensuing dance is a cauldron of human emotion with the director showing the faces of the main players, Casanova looking at Maria, Catherine, put out, gazing on with jealous concern, the Duke of Mari uneasy as his wife is romanced and Orloff concerned, as always, for his queen… The camera follows the movement around the huge ballroom and it’s another glorious set piece.

There’s more to come after Casanova and Maria escape from Russia and her husband and it’s back to Venice for a colourised denouement and more tough choices for our hero on the romance-front: it’s unrelenting and could easily carry on for Casanova in an endless loop of over-lapping love stories.

Diana Karenne and Ivan Mozzhukhin
Casanova is a dream of escape from responsibility and not just a tale of amorous addiction. Casanova always easily evades the officials and gallops off to love again …he always has a way out just as he'll always - nearly - get captured by his heart.

Stephen Horne had a ball with this, creating over two hours of musical variety in a four-hander with Ivan’s rhythmic mime. The plot and pacing may occasionally wander but Stephen held theme and tone driving the narrative onwards in characterful interplay with the lead’s darting eyes and feline grace.

As Bryony Dixon said, she could have picked any number of Ivan’s French films of this period – a golden streak for Mozzhukhin and Alexandre Volkoff, but this one is the most lavish and light-hearted and clearly all concerned were deadly serious about the project. It made us laugh and long for an era of powderpuff decadence.